In another of our occasional posts on last month’s Stoke Newington Literary Festival, we have an event featuring writer, broadcaster, architecture expert and well-loved old grumpyboots Jonathan Meades. His TV work is compelling, detailed, eccentric and informative. He’s one of those figures who, even if you don’t agree with him, is eminently watchable and of whose type we need more on TV. His most recent series was Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloodymindedness.
His books have had a bit of a renaissance recently, thanks to Unbound, which crowdfunds publishing projects, and had a bit of a profile boost last week when Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake was longlisted for the Booker. It’s also published two of Robert Llewellyn’s News From trilogy, with the third to follow soon. Through Unbound Meades has published a collection of writing on architecture, Museum Without Walls, which is scrappy but interesting, a 20th-anniversary reissue of his apparently quite filthy novel Pompey, and Pidgin Snaps, a box of 100 postcards.
He was at Stokey LitFest to promote An Encyclopaedia of Myself, published more traditionally by Fourth Estate, a sort-of autobiography. The event was hosted by Neil Denny, who has interviewed him several times for the Little Atoms podcast, most recently a couple of weeks after the event on the same book.
He opened with a long reading, which kept the capacity audience transfixed. Like Will Self he’s unafraid to challenge our vocabulary and show off his erudition. He never uses a word that does not fit, but it does seem he will occasionally use them to create whole paragraphs that don’t. As he is so discursive it’s hard to pin down a theme, but there was plenty about sexual abuse and his lack of exposure to it, denying him the “chance to incite the pity of others, to milk the world’s sympathy gland”. I understand that what he was probably trying to do was to play on the fact that most biographies cash in on their misery memoir status, but I thought it a phrase that did rather devalue the experience of genuine abuse survivors.
However, after moving on from that uncomfortable moment, meditations on memory, family, industry, population and much more get woven together in a more coherent argument about the invention of childhood and the teenager — “we’re consistently shocked when children go from Lego to leg-over” — and how it creates modern adults.
The it was on to the discussion with Denny who asked him to sum up what it was about.
“It’s a book about an England of more than 50 years ago. Very different England, a provincial England and the people who inhabited it, especially my parents’ generation who had lost six years of their youth to the war and were bewildered and angered by the austerity of the late second half of the 1940s and the first half of the 1950s. When Macmillan said in 1957 that “most of our people have never had it so good” there were still people living in caves in the Severn Valley. My grandmother had an outside toilet, no bathroom. Life was very different, quite hard and the great pampering of the 1960s was well in the future.”
ND: Why did he want to write it in the first place?
“I wanted to write it because I wanted to read it, which is the reason I do most things. I started it a very long time ago and then gave it up almost immediately that was largely to do with the fact that in middle age I found it difficult to empathise with my former self as a child. Now I’m old I find it much easier, now that all I have left is the possibility of becoming the face of Pampers.
“When you are a child you are born into a labyrinth which don’t understand. You seek to understand it, you want to know the names of things and you want to know why this happens. There’s quite a lot in the book about confronting adults with questions which they are unable to answer. I was a very curious child. Eventually you get on top of it and by the time you’re in your thirties you begin to understand things. Then as you get older you find the world has changed without your really noticing it. And you then again become puzzled. When footballers come on to the pitch they’re always holding the hand of a child. Why? Has anyone ever seen any of these children again?
“Samuel Johnson instructed us that we should always give to beggars because if you don’t give to beggars then the beggars will no longer have the wherewithal to continue in their profession. Fair enough. So you see a guy lying in the shop doorway with a styrofoam cup in front of him and he’s wearing rags and you chuck 50p into the cup. And instead of him grunting something of gratitude or just saying nothing, they say ‘what are you doing?’ and you find that he’s wearing destitution chic and his cup is full of skinny latte. You get to this age of perpetual bemusement. Befuddled by all that’s around you, you are in a position to kind of take on what it’s like to be a child.”
ND: The style the book is written in, going backwards and forwards in time, also have something to do with that?
“The book is in a way a collage. I have a very capacious memory, it’s a gift, rather like being able to sing in tune, which I can’t do. It’s rather like having a particular ability to do the Cruyff turn, something like that. The structure, the architecture of the book is determined by the fact that my memory is very capacious but at the same time very indiscriminate. Events don’t tie in with each other, though one tends to remember the exceptional. One also remembers tiny things which don’t link, so it would have been dishonest to attempt to create one linear narrative. There are lots of anecdotes, lots of stories, lots of incidents, lots of pictures, lots of description. I do believe in the Flaubertian thing, of describe, describe, describe. Having said which I didn’t want to create a book which was completely anarchic in its form, so it does extend a sort of alphabetic armature.”
ND: This was the postwar period of austerity, but it’s also a time of freedom, having beaten the Nazis, and the class system is disintegrating…
“I think you didn’t see much dissolution of the class structure in Salisbury. It seemed very much set in stone, as it had been before the war. I think one of the very particular things about being brought up in Salisbury is that there were two influences. One was God, the other was the Cold War.
“With the exception of the area around Aldershot and Camberley, Salisbury has the greatest concentration of military in Britain, it also has Boscombe Down aeronautical experimental station and Porton Down, which I write a lot about. One was very conscious of the fact one was on a kind of war footing. It was so palpable, everywhere you went there were soldiers in uniform and I knew many people who worked at Porton. So there’s a specificity about that.”
ND: You often talk about people as being friends of your parents, but a lot of them are military so they’re quite transient.
“There was an extraordinary transience because the military people were posted to Larkhill or Durringon, Tidworth or Hook, any of these camps nearby, for 18 months. My parents would see them and then they wouldn’t turn up again for another five or six years when they were reposted, so the whole demographic of that town was constantly shifting. People would arrive at school, be there for a couple of terms, then go. It was quite strange, there was no kind of stability. With the God industry it was very different. They were much more settled, and a pretty unpleasant bunch they were too.
“My parents couldn’t stand each other’s families, and had virtually nothing to do with them. I was much more sympathetic to my mother’s family, many of whose members came from Southampton, which is only 20 miles from Salisbury, and we used to go there very regularly. One has to remember that Southampton is the hometown of Benny Hill and Ken Russell, and virtually everyone in my mother’s family was a creature from a Donald McGill seaside postcard, which I was very much in favour of.
“My father had three siblings, all of whom were comprehensively fucked-up. There was a sister who was literally a maid, who I refer to throughout as the Virgin Witch, a nasty, spiteful woman. There was a brother who when I was very young lived in Southborne, which was then the easternmost point of Bournemouth and he used to swim in the sea every day of the year. Then he bought a caravan which he parked on the shore at Highcliff so that waves could break over it. When his wife had open-heart surgery, which was in its infancy, in 1962-3, she came out of hospital and he took her to recuperate by camping in the Cairngorms. She died.
“He and the others believed in a weird sort of pantheism. They were parlously close to ‘blood and soil‘ and they couldn’t stand my mother as she was a townie who had taken their brother from them. They thought that I was a sissy because I would wear a pullover when it was cold. They were terrible scroungers, they scrounged off my parents even though they were better off than my parents. Otherwise it was all hunky-dory.”
ND: I was particularly interested in one of the people you knew at Porton Down, Ken James.
“Ken was a great friend. He was my parents’ neighbour. I met him when I was 12 and I went on seeing him till he died four years ago. I wrote his obituary in the Times. He was a truly remarkable man who was head of Porton; he was Denis Healy’s scientific adviser; he introduced operational research into the civil service; he persuaded the civil service to get computers; he also invented a camera battery [the PAG Belt], which is used to this day. He was a great polymath and he and various other Porton Down scientists took LSD as early as 1948. Ken called it “Sparkle”. This was six years before Aldous Huxley took it and Ken was very anti-religion: he said towards the end of his life that the one thing he would never have foreseen in his life was the resurgence of religion throughout the world. He said: ‘I thought we’d got rid of all that shit.’
“He rued the fact that because Huxley had ‘the credulous gene’ — he was always searching for transcendence — that LSD got mixed up with seeking religious experience when he thought it was a potential psychiatric tool, but also something of great aesthetic worth. It is evident that people started taking this drug, which was legal until 1965, because they thought they were going to meet the godhead or George Harrison or something, rather than looking at it in a rather more secular way. He called them ‘campervan mystics’.”
ND: How has the world you describe in the book influenced your work?
“The world of filthy Englishmen in Pompey is sort of grounded in this milieu, but it’s invention. The one rule I had for this book was not to invent any people or any incident. I’ve changed various names but that out of courtesy rather than any fear of recrimination. One uses the same material in very different ways. This is like the ore, the base material. The artifice is in the structure rather than the incident.”
ND:How did the landscape and the places that you visit in this book influence your love of place.
“I realised at a very early age that I was privileged to live in an area where there are Stonehenge, Woodhenge, the countless barrows and ditches, the place where British archaeology really began, and that I had to somehow link with this. It was a kind of duty, and I eventually came to realise there was something rather marvellous about the ancientness of that place. That came back specifically because of a very curious incident where a gardener got tetanus and died: it was rumoured, although I don’t think there’s any scientific basis for this, that this was because there were so many bodies in the ground in the Avon valley. This strikes me as being a bit of folklore but nonetheless it stuck.
“The places that adhere to one’s brain and one’s memory are not necessarily pretty. There is nothing particularly pretty about Cranborne Chase, it’s rather grand and it’s rather austere. I suppose parts of the New Forest are pretty… but they have a sort of grimness to them, hugely impressive and they belong to the Sublime rather than the beautiful.”
ND: Just yesterday morning I was listening to the radio and people were discussing English Heritage and how what we need to protect now is the view rather than the building.
“One way to protect the view is to chop down trees. One notices this all over Britain: no-one pollards trees, so architecture, great buildings, are often occluded by boughs and because of the green tyranny that we live in one sacrifices great buildings to boring trees.”
This book ends when you hit 17, which you set as the end of childhood, will the be any more?
“Of this? No, I’ve never thought of writing that. I made a list of my exact contemporaries who have died and there were over 40 of them and I thought of writing about some of the less well-paid.”
The first audience question is about one of his films, Isle of Rust from 2009, the script of which is in Museum Without Walls. It begins with the question “Why is Scotland world leader in the roots caper” and ends with a car in a peat bog. Is that a sign of pessimism about the future?
“I don’t think that there’s anything particularly grim about the Isle of Rust. The point, one of the points, was that was that you go to a place like Callanish on Lewis or Stonehenge, no-one knows what they were for, but there is this knee-jerk reaction that it must be something to do with religion. What I tried to show in that film is that when people dig up, many centuries hence, the remnants of Ford Transits and Mini Metros and Allegros and Triumph Dolomites which have been sunk in peat bogs, people will dig them up and think ‘oh, yeah, this is some kind of religious symbol’. I’m actually not particularly pessimistic about the future at all. Humankind is pretty resourceful and can generally manages to find a way out of just about everything.”
Another audience member asked: “Driving down the A303 a couple of years ago and two miles away from Stonehenge there’s this very bland, new industrial estate called Solstice Park, I wondered of you were familiar with it, because it made me think of you.”
JM: “I have seen it, it’s in Amesbury. One of the things about that, which is very close to Boscombe Down where V-Bombers were developed, is that the buildings which the military erected have set a precedent for big, architectural banality everywhere round there. The army camps are architecturally woeful, really terrible. It’s probably very close to the headquarters of the NAAFI, an enormous warehouse there full of disgusting food for squaddies.”
There then came a question on the move of his films from BBC2 to BBC4, is it a general move on mainstream television away from more esoteric or challenging programming? Is that a problem or does he think the digital channels have opened up room for more?
“Yes, there is a move away, it’s undeniable. Anything which has a three-figure IQ tends to be on BBC4. It’s the way of the world. I don’t think we should accept it but there’s b-all you can do about it once you’ve met a few television executives you realise that you accept what you get or slit your throat.”
Having been to Finland, Belgium and France, where are you likely to go next?
“I made Jerry Building 20 years ago about Hitler’s architecture to show it wasn’t Albert Speer, it was mostly volklich stuff. I intend to do Joe Building, about Stalin’s architecture and I intend to do Ben Building about Mussolinist architecture, which is much better and more various than the other dictatorships, far richer: very late Art Nouveau to extremely clinical modernism to extraordinary wild baroque, probably the last baroque that was ever built.”
If you want to read a sample of the book, the FT has a chapter online.
Later in the day came The Future of the Book, a lively panel discussion sponsored by The Bookseller, hosted by its editor Philip Jones. It was fast-paced, with six participants — so it wouldn’t really read well as an article even had I been able to keep up with my notes of who said what — but the gist was that traditional publishers have failed to keep up with new distribution models (ironically, I thought, given the sponsor, booksellers were not mentioned at all) so smaller, innovative companies and authors themselves are trying to outmanoeuvre them.
The panel featured Nick Harkaway, Eric Huang, Polly Courtney, Stephanie Seegmuller and Chris McCrudden, and we managed to get a few shots of Nick and Polly afterwards.
And in the evening came a double-bill treat: Julien Temple and Ray Davies. However, it was a very long event and planning for the the EIBF looms, so that event will have to wait for another day.
EDIT 7/8/14: There’s been a little bit of confusion that might suggest we’re taking credit for talking to Jonathan for this piece. We’re not: Neil Denny, not affiliated with us in any way, was the one brave enough to go on stage. I just wrote up their discussion (and gushed embarrasingly as Elaine took pictures afterwards).